What you need to know
Joma Sison, a revolutionary leader in exile, leaves a legacy deeply intertwined with the modern political history of the Philippines.
Jose Maria Canlas Sison, known to all as Joma, passed away December 16 while hospitalized in the Netherlands. Sison died of heart failure after several weeks in emergency care in Utrecht. The 83-year-old Filipino revolutionary founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968 alongside the guerilla movement that is the New People’s Army (NPA) a year later. Both groups have been waging an armed campaign for more than half a century to liberate the country from “imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism” and install a “People’s Government.”
Sison leaves behind a legacy intertwined with the modern political history of the Philippines. He is both a hero to many progressives, revolutionaries, and free-thinkers, but a villain or terrorist to government officials and conservatives, especially supporters of martial law under the Marcos family.
The CPP central committee described him as “among the greatest of Filipinos of the past century for masterfully and creatively applying Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to the Philippines and the Philippine revolution, and giving the Filipino people the strength to carve the country’s future and attain their aspirations for national freedom and democracy.”
In the last few years of his life, Sison was a staunch opponent of both the Marcos and Duterte governments, describing them as puppets of both American and Chinese influence. He also criticized the growing number of human rights violations and maintained that there is revolutionary fighting because peace will not be attained amid the oppression of the poor.
Sison was a key member and initiator of peace negotiations between the revolutionaries represented broadly by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the government. Norway, a third-party arbiter, often hosted and oversaw these meetings.
The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented that Sison “welcomed dialogue in pursuit of finding a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in the Philippines.” They also expressed hope that the country would find its way to a lasting peace. Sison always believed that this could be achieved not simply by laying down arms, but by addressing the roots of the armed conflict, namely the extreme poverty and exploitation of the majority of Filipinos.
In an interview in 2019, Sison explained that movements can flourish while opening itself to the negotiating table at the same time. He then told The News Lens in an interview, “The revolutionary movement is advancing. But the NDFP is demonstrating to the people in the Philippines and the world that it takes every chance to negotiate even with its enemy and avail of any step possible to move forward towards the goal of just peace.”
The Department of National Defense commented that Sison’s death removes a “stumbling block” to the peace process. (It is the government of Rodrigo Duterte that opted out of the last iteration of negotiations in 2017.)
Sison was also a key figure in opposing martial law under dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. He was also a political prisoner for nearly nine years, several of which he spent chained to a cot in solitary confinement.
During the 60s and 70s, as if acting as a counterpoint to the growing tyranny under Marcos, Sison founded many organizations that comprised the contemporary urban protest movement. Today, many activist groups take cue from the principles, strategies and tactics of the groups of that era.
Renato Reyes Jr., Secretary-General of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) or BAYAN, an umbrella group of activists, underscored the weight of Sison’s contributions in the movement and uprising that toppled Marcos.
“Today, none of Joma’s fascist detractors can claim to have done as much for the cause of freedom of democracy. The fascists even insist on denying the atrocities of the dictatorship,” he said.
Officials under the current regime of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. have been quick to disparage Sison in his death. Reyes said, “They pounce on the occasion of his death to vilify the movement they have failed to defeat, and to mask their utter failure at solving the problems that give rise to the armed conflict.”
Lorraine Badoy, spokesperson of the Duterte-aligned National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), expressed rejoice at the news of Sison’s passing.
“I’m real happy the terrorist bastard Joma Sison lived long enough to see the rise of the son of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. as president of the land,” Badoy said. She is certain revolutionaries will be fighting over the “power vacuum” left by Sison. “May they succeed in killing each other. Make the job easier for us.”
Life in exile
Sison has been living as a political refugee in the Netherlands since the Philippine government canceled his passport in 1988 while he was traveling for a speaking engagement. He has lived in the city of Utrecht ever since, doing his best to contribute to the revolution.
Before he formed the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship, Sison was a university professor. Besides his involvement in the peace process, most of his days in the Netherlands were spent giving lectures to Filipinos and foreigners alike, writing texts on revolutionary advancement and fending off persecution from various governments.
The NDFP has reported at least three confirmed assassination plots against Sison. After the U.S. government in 2001 declared Sison an international terrorist, the Philippines followed suit. In 2007, the Dutch and Philippine authorities also collaborated to arrest Sison on murder charges. These were dropped, however, as Sison was incarcerated under Marcos when the crimes were alleged to have taken place.
The CPP has declared 10 days of mourning, which will culminate in its 54th anniversary on December 26. Sison will be cremated after his wake. Having never again returned to Philippine soil after over three decades in exile, Sison’s family, activists and revolutionaries alike are calling for him to be buried in his home country.
Marco Valbuena, CPP public information has expressed that the remains of the party’s founder be brought back “in accordance to his wishes as a Filipino and for them (groups and individuals) to give their last respect and farewell to the man they consider their teacher and inspiration in the revolution.”
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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